A season for reflection is comforting in time of constant change

November 27, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Since even before the Plymouth colonists expressed their gratitude to the Almighty for seeing their little ship safely across the stormy North Atlantic from the Old World to the New, formal expressions of Thanksgiving have tended to involve looking back.

There are both practical and psychological reasons for this. The practical reason is that it's impossible to be truly grateful for blessings which have yet to arrive. We may well anticipate them confidently if we have hope and faith, but we can't be grateful until they actually occur.

Psychological connection

There's a strong psychological connection, obviously, between

the blessings we've received and the ones we anticipate. Even prudent agnostics can see the wisdom of praising the Giver for what He's done so that (in case He happens to exist) He won't suddenly stop doing it out of pique.

''Thanksgiving for a former doth invite/ God to bestow a second benefit,'' observed the 17th-century poet Robert Herrick, in lines more notable for their acuity than their rhyme.

Some optimistic souls assume that because life has been rewarding so far, there's no reason to assume that it won't be just as rewarding in the days to come. Others, less sunny in their outlook, believe that all lives are ultimately balanced, and that all past joys will be paid for with future pain. These are the people who, as Elizabeth Browning said, ''always sigh in thanking God.''

Anyway, at this time of year the nostalgic tendency for most of us is to look backward. This can be a dangerous practice, because it invites the future to sneak up and sucker-punch you while your head's turned. But even so, the annual Thanksgiving glimpse backward is a comforting ceremony and probably worth the modest risk.

If we have our eyes opened and our minds engaged when we look over our shoulders, we'll see that as the years pass, they're not interchangeable. Some are a lot better than others, a fact that a society almost psychotically afraid to make distinctions finds frightening and confusing. The Pilgrims, by contrast, took it for granted that the blessings of Providence would be erratic.

The late Perry Miller, a favorite college professor of mine and an authority on the Puritan psyche, noted that while the first Thanksgiving was a time for rejoicing, such occasions were irregular at best in those early years on the bleak New England shore.

The Plymouth colony scheduled festivals ''pro temporibus et causis'' -- in accordance with the way God seemed to be treating it. If times were harsh, days of humiliation and penance, not rejoicing, were deemed to be in order.

The Puritan mind

''For the Puritan mind, to fix thanksgiving to a mechanical revolution of the calendar would be folly,'' wrote Miller. ''Who can say that in November there will be that for which thanks should be uttered rather than lamentations?'' If formal gratitude becomes only ceremonial, ''society is rewarding its own well-doing, not acknowledging divine favor. When this happens, Calvinism is dead.''

But not to digress. We were considering Thanksgiving -- an appropriately American holiday in that it has metamorphosed from its original form and become something quite different, but interesting and fraught with odd contradictions.

For me, Thanksgiving remains an occasion which is primarily about family, but also, in subdued but still important ways, about such things as landscape and weather. It comes at a time when the countryside looks and feels a certain way. Some Thanksgivings it snows, and on some it's downright hot, but these are minor variations on the same end-of-autumn theme.

I'm inevitably saddened at this time of year by more lasting changes in the countryside. When I was my children's age, you could walk in any direction for miles and cross nothing but farms -- meaning places where people lived and engaged in agriculture for a living. There were few ''No Trespassing'' signs. On the roads, in the towns, most of the people you encountered were people you knew.

That's gone now, I guess forever, and with it has vanished most of what made the neighborhood rural rather than exurban, which is what it is now. I sometimes wish for my children's sake that it were still as it used to be, but that's not entirely rational. They're heading for the future and don't need anyone wishing them back into the past.

No Eden here

It seems to me presumptuous, also, to say the countryside has been ''ruined,'' or ''spoiled,'' which are sentiments I hear a lot these days. The farms I grew up knowing so well weren't Eden, though they seemed so to me at the time. Before there were

farms, there was forest. Today there's a school of thought that believes the ruin began when the trees started coming down.

Change happens, and as the Puritans seem to have understood, most of it's beyond our control. Meanwhile, as long as we can see better days somewhere, whether they're waiting in the future or remembered from the past, a moment of thanksgiving surely isn't out of order.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 11/27/97

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